There’s been a pretty fervent debate brewing over the last few years in this country over the idea of “cultural appropriation.” In the wake of someone like Rachel Dolezal, the question of who has a right to claim the right to signifiers of different cultures has been debated feverishly on college campuses and beyond.
I think that even among people a little on the fence on the issue seem to agree that it’s tasteless – to say the least – to define and appropriate a culture, ethnicity, or race by a few token visuals we ascribe to them. Native Americans, possibly more than any other group, have suffered by seeing their culture reduced to a few kitschy, mass-produced “accessories” – exemplified by the image of the hipster wearing a ceremonial headdress to Coachella, and chronicled in blogs such as Native Appropriations.
A few more articles on the topic (there are many):
Enter, Jersey City.
I was shocked, to say the least, at receiving an email from the New JSQ Community Association earlier this week, announcing a new city-funded (that is to say, taxpayer-funded), “official” mural going up in JSQ. Here’s the artist’s conception. Painting started today:
I was concerned, to say the least. At no time was there vetting or information shared with the community for this mural, nor is there ever any vetting for any city-funded mural ever – Jersey City’s mural program is done almost completely in the dark, run through the Department of Public Works, and paid for by a grant for litter and graffiti abatement (if you read this blog regularly, you know how well that is going). There is no open process by which artists can apply, nor any process by which the community can give feedback or let the city know their opinion on the work that they will have to live with for the foreseeable future. This results in debacles like the Monopoly board scandal of last summer. You can read a letter I wrote to the editor of the Jersey Journal back then, about the need for more of an open process:
As I viewed at the email from the neighborhood association, I tried to keep an open mind at the jpeg opening up on my phone. Yes, there’s a tepee in the lower right, somehow being blocked off by the hand of the Statue of Liberty. Yes, there’s a howling wolf, braying at the moon. Perhaps all this Native American kitsch was just…. a coincidence? Maybe it was an ironic swipe at the history of appropriation?
Then, I realized the artist had a second mural, already in the area:
I checked the artist’s website, praying he’d claim membership as a member of an indigenous tribe. As far as I can see, he does not.
It really doesn’t even matter. The fact that I even had to check to see if such a thing existed in the bio of the artist says to me that the city hasn’t done their job in creating this mural. In other cities (like Philadelphia, or the many programs that exist in NYC, or numerous other cities), creating a mural is a multi-step process. The artist meets with the community. They get to know him/her. In some cases, schoolchildren or members of the neighborhood are tapped to come out and assist in helping execute the mural. The work of art becomes a centerpiece and place of pride; people can walk by and say, “I had a hand in that,” or “I know that artist – and he’s great.” People are happy to have the work of art as part of their daily lives. They feel a sense of ownership and connection.
But that’s not how we do things in Jersey City. Here, we rush to get up as many murals as possible (over 70 last year), community be damned. People wake up one morning, and there’s a mural there they had no input on. But it’s not really about what we want, you see. It’s just about jamming this project through as quickly as possible. (Does the impending Election Day have anything to do with this? Well, that’s up to you to decide.)
I showed images of the mural in progress to my sophomore/junior/senior art history class this past week, at the art school I teach at in NYC. They were absolutely aghast. How on earth could a city, just 20 minutes away, do something so tone-deaf, so out-of-touch, as this? They were slack-jawed and horrified. “That’s like wearing a headdress to Coachella,” one of my students said.
And yes – that’s absolutely correct. That’s the Jersey City “official” mural program – so out-of-touch, so twenty years behind any sort of dialogue on art and culture that it’s absurd. And so it will remain, until actual, real community involvement is integrated.
Note: a petition has been drafted to address these very issues. It can be found at the following address: